The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate

by Crawlspace

 

~ Chapter 6:  Living with Fate – pt 2 ~

 

 

            The sun was just beginning to rise as Rei sat on Makoto’s balcony, her feet against the railing.  She huddled down into Minako’s jacket, trying to keep out the chill of the early morning.

           

            Rei’s hands were pushed deep into the jacket’s pockets.  Her right hand played with a small black box, turning it over and around.  She pulled it out and stared at it for several seconds before opening it.

 

            Inside the box was a pale gold ring.  A vine with tiny leaves was carved along the outside.  On the inside of the band was the kanji for ‘home.’

 

            Rei sighed.  When Makoto apologized for messing up her plans, the girl had no idea just how much had been messed up.  The man Rei had spoken to at the hotel said he would hold the things she had left there until she could come by to get them.  It was unfortunate, he went on to say, that she and her companion wouldn’t be staying with them.  Rei thought it was more unfortunate that the hotel would be keeping her money, along with Minako’s twelfth rose.

 

            The sliding door opening behind her startled Rei.  She almost tipped herself backwards in her haste to close the jewelry box and get it hidden.

 

            “Rei,” said Ami as she came out onto the balcony.  “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

 

            Rei clutched her chest.  As she regained her composure, she said, “That’s okay.  I thought maybe you were Minako.”

 

            “What’s that?” asked Ami when she saw the little black box Rei was holding against her chest.

 

            “Oh, this?”  Rei laughed nervously.  “It’s a present for Minako.  I was going to give it to her last night, but with everything that happened…  The timing just isn’t right.”

 

            Ami nodded as if she understood.  She moved to the railing and rested her hands on it, watching as the sky lightened.  “I think Makoto will be all right now that everyone knows.  She was very concerned over how everyone was going to react.  Especially Usagi.”

 

            “I’ve been there,” replied Rei.  “Minako and I were both afraid of how the rest of you would take it when you found out we were together.  With Usagi… she’s the one we all try to make everything perfect for.  I didn’t want to be the one to take that away from her.”  Rei smirked.  “Now I can’t help wondering why I was so worried about it.”

 

            Ami couldn’t help but grin at the memory of Rei and Minako with nothing between them and their dignity but a bedsheet.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Usagi laugh quite so hard.”

 

            Rei groaned in embarrassment.  “Me either.  Figures the one time in her life she’s early for something is the exact time my alarm clock decides to die.  The next time Grandpa goes away, I’m locking all the doors.”

 

            “You always told us to just come in,” said Ami.  “We had no idea we’d find you like that.”

 

            “At least you guys took it well.  Even Luna and Artemis, once they got done yelling at us about duty, honor, and discretion.”  After several moments of silence, Rei asked with a nod towards the living room, “How are you doing with all of this?”

 

            “How I am doesn’t matter,” answered Ami.

 

            “That’s not true,” said Rei.

 

            Ami remained quiet.

 

            “Ami,” said Rei.  When Ami turned to her, she continued, “You have my permission to be selfish for a moment.”

 

            Ami smiled at Rei’s words.  This was what Rei had been saying to her since she’d found out how Ami felt and had reassured her it was okay.  “Thank you, but it isn’t necessary right now.”

 

            “Like hell it isn’t,” replied Rei.  “The person you’re in love with did something incredibly intimate and stupid with someone who isn’t you.  This has got to be bugging you at least a little.”

 

            “It isn’t…”  Ami stopped.  She hesitated for a moment, allowing some of what she’d been holding back to come through.  “I see him at school everyday,” she said quietly.  “He sits two rows over from me, one seat back.  I dislike him.  I dislike knowing he was with her the way he was.  I dislike knowing that she will always chase after boys who care nothing for her until she finds one who does while I will always remain her friend.”

 

            Ami turned and faced the glass doors, looking into the living room.  “I am her friend, though,” she said with a sad smile.  “I’ve always known I would have to deal with something like this sooner or later.  Besides, she needs a friend right now more than she needs someone with a silly schoolgirl crush.”

 

 

*            *           *

 

            Usagi lay on her side with her head propped up on her hand.  Sometime while she was sleeping, someone had turned off the television.  There was light beginning to come in through the windows, though.  So, in the early morning light, Usagi studied Makoto’s sleeping form.

 

            Usagi didn’t think Makoto looked any different.  Actually, she looked kind of funny with her mouth hanging open the way it was.  Although -- and here Usagi tipped her head to get a better look -- with Makoto’s shirt pulled the way it was…  Usagi quickly shifted her eyes.  That wasn’t someplace she was supposed to be looking, even if the target area had gotten a bit bigger.

 

            Next, Usagi’s eyes landed on Makoto’s belly.  It was still flat, regardless of the tiny little baby that was hiding in there.  Usagi reached out with a finger and tentatively poked her friend’s stomach.

 

            After the fifth or sixth poke, Makoto opened one of her eyes.  “Usagi,” she asked, “what are you doing?”

 

            “Can you feel it?” asked Usagi, completely entranced by the finger that kept landing just below Makoto’s bellybutton.

 

            “You poking me?” asked Makoto teasingly.  She scooted into a sitting position away from Usagi’s questing finger.

 

            “No, silly.  The baby.”

 

            “I know what you meant, Usagi.”  She thought for a moment about how to answer her princess’ question.  “Not the way you mean,” she said slowly, “but certain things feel different, so I know something’s there making it all happen.”

 

            Usagi’s eyes inadvertently went to Makoto’s chest.

 

            When Makoto noticed where Usagi was staring, she chuckled.  “Yeah, those are one of the things.”

 

            Usagi blushed and quickly darted her eyes away.  “Sorry.”

 

            “It’s okay,” said Makoto.  “Everyone’s going to be staring soon enough.”

 

            “When are you due?”

 

            The question came from Michiru.  Makoto realized then that everyone was awake or in the process of waking.  Michiru was leaning comfortably against Haruka, who was still looking a bit dazed.  Hotaru and Chibi-usa were both in the living room.  Hotaru was spooned against Setsuna on the couch and was likely the reason the woman was awake.  Chibi-usa was sprawled out at Makoto’s feet, the way she was watching Makoto very similar to Usagi.

 

            Just as Makoto noticed Rei and Ami were missing, the door to the balcony slid open.  The two girls came in and returned to the spots where they had slept.

 

            “What did we miss?” asked Rei as she settled back beside Minako.

 

            “We’re trying to find out when she’s due so we know how to place our bets,” answered Haruka.

 

            Michiru turned a stern look on the blonde.  “That isn’t why I asked.”

 

            Haruka only grinned.

 

            Setsuna gave Hotaru a small nudge.  “Go get the bag from last night and give it to your Haruka-papa,” she said to the child.

 

            Hotaru hurried over to the bag and brought it back to Haruka.  She knelt in front of her parents as Haruka took the calendar and notepad from the bag.

 

            “Isn’t it pretty?” said Hotaru, referring to the calendar.  Me and Chibi-usa picked it out all by ourselves.”

 

            “It’s very nice,” said Michiru.  She pointed to a thumbnail picture of a water sprite with silvery blonde hair and translucent wings.  “I especially like this one.”

 

            “Way to think ahead, Setsuna,” commented Haruka as she opened the calendar.  “All right, Mako-chan.  When’s D-day?”

 

            Makoto smiled.  “May 14th.”

 

            Haruka made a note on the calendar and turned it for everyone to see.  “Okay, this is how it works.  Five hundred yen a bet with four things to bet on:  weight, length, delivery date, and gender.  First come, first serve.”

 

            Chibi-usa turned immediately to Usagi.  “Usagi, give me money,” demanded the girl.

 

            Before Usagi could refuse, Setsuna spoke up, “I’m afraid you and I are disqualified from playing, Small Lady.  It wouldn’t be fair.”

 

            As Chibi-usa sat back, her arms crossed and pouting, the others scrambled to their purses and jacket pockets.  Hotaru made the rounds between her parents, getting money from each of them.

 

            “Come on, Ami,” said Makoto when Ami didn’t make a move for her bag.  “You have to play, too.  I’ll lend you some money if you didn’t bring enough.”

 

            Ami grinned at Makoto.  That wasn’t why she was hesitating.  But since it looked like Makoto was enjoying this and was going to play along herself, Ami figured she might as well, too.  “I was just thinking for a moment, Mako-chan,” said Ami.  “A thought out choice has a better chance of winning.”

 

            Makoto laughed and opened a drawer on the end table by the couch.

 

            Usagi emerged from digging around in her purse.  “I only have a thousand,” she said plaintively.

 

            “Bet what you have on you now,” said Haruka.  “You can put more down later.”

 

            “Well, I’ve got two thousand,” said Makoto.  She closed the drawer she had gotten the money from.  “And since I’m the one who has to give birth, I get to go first.”

 

            Haruka laughed at that.  “Sounds fair.  Okay, Mako-chan, write your destiny.”

 

            Minako nearly choked to death at those words.  Rei patted the blonde on the back as the others turned concerned eyes on her.  All except for Setsuna.  Minako swore the other woman was suppressing a smile at her reaction to what Haruka had said.

 

            Makoto handed the money to Haruka.  “No sense in inviting trouble, so I’m taking my due date.  A girl, on the 14th, 8 ½ pounds, 20 inches.”

 

            “A perfect baby,” grinned Michiru.

 

            “She’s my kid.  What else could she be?”

 

            “A whole lotta stubborn trouble,” answered Minako with a smile.  “Since Mako-chan says it’s a girl, I’m picking that, too.  Born on the 13th, 8 pounds.  I’ll pick a length as soon as I get another 500 yen.”

 

            The betting went around the room.  Haruka kept track of everyone’s guesses in the mini notebook Hotaru had gotten with the calendar.

 

            Finally, they got to Usagi.  “I’m not sure,” said the blonde.  “Ami, you go before me.”

 

            “Are you certain, Usagi?”  When the blonde nodded, Ami continued, “Then I say a boy, just because no one else has.  He’ll be born on the 17th, 7 ½ pounds and 19 ¼ inches.”

 

            “Okay,” said Usagi as Haruka finished writing Ami’s information, “I know what I want.”  The blonde smiled as if she’d uncovered some huge secret no one else knew.  “It’s gonna be a boy.  Let’s see, what days are left?  Here, the 9th,” she said, pointing to an empty square.  “I can guess on the rest after I get my allowance next week, right?”

 

            Mmmm hmmm,” nodded Haruka as she tucked Usagi’s 1000 yen bill into an envelope with the rest of the money.  “I’ll look forward to taking your money, Usagi.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Ami brought a hand up to cover her eyes and groaned.  Sunlight was seeping in through the crack in the drapes and landing directly on her face.  The warmth and brightness over her closed eyes had woken her up several hours before she was ready.

 

            Parting the fingers she had shielding her eyes, Ami stared at her travel alarm.  No human being should be up at 7:28 on a Sunday morning, especially not after the night she’d had.

 

            Minako’s birthday had been last Tuesday.  Not that anyone could have missed it, for the blonde had circled October 22nd on every calendar in sight.  As a present, last night the girls had taken Minako to see the boy band that had replaced the Three Lights as Japan’s hottest thing.  They’d all had a good time, and Ami and Makoto had stumbled into Makoto’s apartment around three am.

 

            Makoto had offered Ami a weary goodnight before disappearing into her room.  She had a breakfast meeting this morning with an old friend of her father’s.  A friend, she’d gone on to tell Ami, who handled her trust fund and all the investments Makoto had inherited from her parents.  Two times a year they would get together, discuss financial business, and catch up on Makoto’s life.

 

            Ami stretched her body out, the tips of her toes pressing into the arm of the couch.  For the better part of the last month, Ami had been sleeping on this couch, this time with her mother’s permission.  Kaya’s only conditions had been that there be no more ‘incidents’ and that Ami’s schoolwork not suffer.  So a sort of routine had set in.  On the nights Kaya was home, Ami would sleep there to be with her mother.  The rest of the time, she was at Makoto’s.

 

            And she’d gotten to keep the shirt.

 

            Ami yawned and rolled off the couch.  She wasn’t wholly awake just yet, and she staggered a bit as she walked towards the hallway.  She bypassed the bathroom, however, when she heard Makoto’s voice.

 

            The door to Makoto’s room was open.  Ami leaned against the doorframe, unaware of the sleepy grin she wore, and rubbed at her eyes.  Makoto’s room looked like her closet had exploded.  Clothes were strewn everywhere as the girl tried to find something she could wear.

 

            Makoto muttered to herself as she pulled her shirt off over her head and grabbed a blouse from her bed.  She buttoned it up, stood in front of the mirror, threw her arms up, and cursed.  The buttons on the blouse strained just a bit too much for modesty across her chest.

 

            “They were too big to begin with,” complained Makoto to her reflection.

 

            Uhnn uhnn, thought Ami.  They’re perfect.

 

            Makoto tensed.  Her reflection stared unblinking at the girl she had just noticed standing in her doorway.

 

            The sleepy fog in Ami’s brain cleared instantly and her eyes went wide.  No.  I didn’t.  There’s no way…

 

            “Um, your door was open,” Ami sputtered out.  “I… I was heading to the bathroom and I heard you talking to yourself.”

 

            “Ami…”

 

            “The bathroom,” said Ami, rolling right over whatever Makoto might say.  “I’m going to use the bathroom.  And take a shower.”  She began to back away into the hall.  “You’re done in there, right?”

 

            Makoto nodded.

 

            “Okay, well, I’ll see you later tonight.  I’m having dinner with my mom, so, um, later.  Bye.”  Ami moved across the hall as quickly as she could.

 

            Escaping into the bathroom, Ami sagged against the closed door and released a huge breath.  Maybe she should spend a few days at home, she began to think.  Because that was too close, and she had no idea what she was going to say if Makoto questioned her about it.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Makoto walked along, not really paying as much attention to the foot traffic as she should.  The meeting had gone well enough.  Yoshiro-san had been surprised, to say the least, when she told him about the pregnancy.  Yet, rather than dwell on it, he had wished her good luck in her decisions, then went on to say her finances were in good shape and he anticipated no problems in the foreseeable future.  Though with this latest development she would likely want to adjust the monthly allowance she was living off of.

 

            Money was the furthest thing from Makoto’s mind, though.  She was having a hard time letting go of what Ami had said this morning.  What it really came down to was the same problem Makoto always had with these things – reading too much into what was being said.  Intellectually, she knew what Ami was trying to say to her; basically ‘don’t be embarrassed.  You worry too much.  You look fine.’  That was it.  But in that moment, Makoto had heard something else.  And Ami had looked so cute standing there in her shirt looking all sleepy.

 

            A car horn startled Makoto.  She stopped and saw Haruka’s car driving slowly beside her.

 

            “You’re a million miles away, Mako-chan,” called Haruka.  “Want a ride?”

 

            Makoto nodded and got in the car.  She thanked Haruka.

 

            “It’s my pleasure,” answered Haruka.  “Besides, there’s something I wanted to ask you about.  It’s a bit personal, though, so if I’m overstepping my bounds, just tell me.”

 

            Makoto looked at the blonde, curious at what she wanted to know.  “Okay.  Go ahead and ask.”

 

            “We – Michiru and I – were wondering how you are financially.”  The blonde kept her eyes firmly on the road ahead of her.  “It’s not something the others can really help you with, and we didn’t think you’d ever ask even if you did need that sort of help.”

 

            Makoto laughed quietly.  “It’s funny that you should bring that up now.  I’m fine for money.  My parents left me with a small trust fund and a handful of investments.  Together, they keep me comfortably.”

 

            “Babies can be expensive,” said Haruka.  “You’re sure you have enough?”

 

            “Yes,” answered Makoto.  “I just left a meeting with the man who handles most of it for me.  He and my father were friends, and they worked for the same investment firm.  All the money goes through him and the firm, and they waive the handling fees as a sort of survivor’s benefit.  Thank you for asking, though.”

 

            “You’re welcome,” said Haruka with a small wave of her hand as if to brush it off as some little thing.

 

            The car came to a rest at a red light.  Makoto took a breath, a decision made.  “Haruka, may I ask you something?  It’s considerably more personal than what you asked me, though.”

 

            “Go ahead,” answered Haruka.  “I can always refuse to answer.”

 

            “Right.”  Makoto swallowed hard.  “When you met Michiru, how did you know she was like you?”

 

            Haruka grinned and moved the car forward as the light changed.  “Like me as in she was a Senshi?” asked the blonde.  “Or like me as in she was a lesbian?”

 

            “The second one,” answered Makoto.

 

            “I wasn’t sure at first,” replied Haruka.  “I thought maybe she was approaching me the way she was because she knew I was Uranus.  But then she gave me some pretty clear hints about what she wanted.  Some of the things she said…  I could have been blind and deaf and still not have missed it.”

 

            “Did you ever think maybe you were misinterpreting what she was saying to you?  That maybe you were only seeing it because it was what you wanted and not really what she meant?”

 

             “With Michiru, no,” answered Haruka.  “She was never a subtle flirt.”  Haruka pulled the car into the parking lot of Makoto’s building.  She looked over to the girl, who was wringing her hands in her lap.  Haruka’s eyes narrowed marginally as she asked, “Why are you asking?  Is there someone you think you’ve misinterpreted?”

 

            Makoto’s hands went still.  “No,” she answered.  “No, I know what she was really saying.”  She turned a smile on Haruka.  “Thanks for the ride, Haruka.”

 

            Makoto got out of the car quickly as Haruka answered her with, “No problem.”

 

            Haruka watched as Makoto disappeared onto the stairs that would take her to her apartment.  She pulled away from the building wondering not for the first time just which side of the fence Makoto stood on.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Haruka pulled the car into the garage.  Before she’d even shut the engine down, Hotaru had the door from the house open.  She ran over and pulled the car door open.

 

            “Did you get it?” asked the child excitedly.

 

            “Yes, I got it,” answered Haruka.  “Come into the house and I’ll give it to you.”

 

            Haruka followed her daughter into the house.  Michiru was on the couch with a paperback.  Haruka leaned down for a kiss, then handed her one of the two small bags she carried.

 

            Hotaru came charging into the living room with a shoebox and photo album.  She took the second bag from Haruka, pulled out the envelope of photos, and sat on the floor with her treasures.

 

            When the photos were spread out, Haruka joined Hotaru on the floor.  She looked over the pictures without questioning her daughter’s organization of them.  Several of the photos caught her immediate attention.

 

            “Hotaru, when did you take these?” asked Haruka.

 

            Hotaru looked over to the pictures Haruka had in front of her.  “At Usagi’s when I spent the night before we went away.  Everybody found out she was babysitting me and came over.  I told you about it after I got home.”

 

            “I remember, now,” replied Haruka, remembering belatedly that this was Hotaru’s first role of film.  It had been exhausted before they’d left for Michiru’s tour and forgotten about until they’d come across it last week.

 

            Haruka looked back down to the photos in front of her.  The half dozen or so were of Ami and Makoto.  There wasn’t anything about them that would have stood out other than the two girls seemed to be together more than they were apart when Hotaru had gone shutterbug happy.  All except for the one photo that had originally caught Haruka’s eye.  In this one, Makoto had her arm around Ami’s shoulders and was giving a V sign while smiling at the camera.  Ami was smiling shyly as she was held close to the other girl, a blush forming across her cheeks.

 

            Haruka recalled a time when she’d seen a similar blush on Makoto as the girl wrapped a scarf around Haruka’s injured hand.  I always knew it was a crush, she thought to herself with a smile.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Makoto stretched out on her side on the couch.   The TV was on and her history textbook was open in front of her.  Her attention was divided between the two, though more of it seemed to be going to channel surfing than studying.

 

            The clock in the kitchen struck eleven, and Makoto looked over to the front door.  Ami was later than usual.  She’d said she was coming back tonight.  If she had changed her mind, she would have called, no matter how awkward she might feel about this morning.

 

            Makoto grimaced and curled up a bit as another wave of nausea rolled over her.  “So you didn’t want the cheesesteak for dinner.  I get the point already.”  She reached for the crackers that sat among the other home remedies she was experimenting with.  At the moment, the peppermints were too sweet and the gingerale would make her burp.  Makoto had a feeling that if that happened air wouldn’t be the only thing coming up.

 

            For most of the afternoon, Makoto had been trying to figure out a way to approach Ami with what she’d said.  She couldn’t decide if it was better to pretend it didn’t happen or if she should bring it up and assure Ami she understood the context in which the words were spoken.

 

            As it was, the last thing Makoto wanted was to make Ami uncomfortable.  Especially now that Ami had relaxed into their routine.  It had taken weeks to get her to come into the apartment without knocking, even though Makoto had given her a key.  It had taken almost as long to get the girl comfortable enough to move around inside the apartment without acting like she was an imposing guest.  She didn’t want Ami walking on eggshells again.  She also didn’t want Ami to leave.

 

            It surprised Makoto when she realized how comfortable she was having another person sharing her space.  Of course, it helped that Ami was the most unobtrusive and least demanding person she knew.  It was all those years the girl had spent trying to blend into the background Makoto figured.

 

            A short while later, the door to the apartment opened slowly.  Makoto watched as Ami removed her shoes and walked quietly to the couch.  Ami sat on the edge of the coffee table after moving aside the glass of soda.

 

            “Hi,” she said to Makoto.  “I wasn’t sure you’d be awake.  Not feeling well?”

 

            “Not really,” answered Makoto.  “She’s upset with me for something, I think.”

 

            “Most likely he’s upset with you for constantly calling him ‘she,’” teased Ami.  She opened the brown lunch bag she was holding.  “Mom gave me something that might help make you feel better.”

 

            Makoto took the lollipop Ami held out to her and chuckled at what she read on the crinkly wrapper.  Preggie Pops?”

 

            Ami grinned and nodded.  “They help with the nausea.  Mom says they give them to the chemotherapy patients at the hospital.  They’re not quite as sugary as these,” said Ami, indicating the bag of red and white candies.  There’s a few different kinds in there.  More peppermint than the others, though, since you said that was working the best.”

 

            “Remind me to commiserate with your mom more often,” said Makoto as she unpeeled the wrapper.  She sucked on the lollipop for a few seconds, then pulled it out of her mouth with a pop.  “Hey, maybe we could get her to adopt me.  You could be my big sister,” grinned Makoto.

 

            Ami made an amused sound.  “Well, if I’m to be your big sister, then you must show me the proper respect and do as I say.  Go to bed, Mako-chan.  You need your rest.”

 

            “According to Watashi-sensei I get too much rest.”  Makoto’s voice deepened as she imitated her history teacher, “’This isn’t a kindergarten, Kino.  And my class is not your nap time.’”

 

            “You fell asleep in his class again?”

 

            “Everybody falls asleep in his class.  I just happen to be the only one that gets caught,” said Makoto in her own defense.  “The textbooks are more interesting than his lectures, but only because they have pictures.”

 

            “I’m surprised he let it go this time,” replied Ami.

 

            Heh, yeah.”  Makoto put on a lopsided grin.  “I suppose now would be a good time to tell you that I have detention for three days next week.”

 

            “Then I suggest you sleep in there and not in any of your classes,” said Ami with mock sternness.  “Better yet, get a good night’s sleep in your own bed.”

 

            “You take the bed tonight.”

 

            “What?” asked Ami, her surprise clear.

 

            “You take the bed,” repeated Makoto.  “You’ll probably fall asleep before I will.  Besides, I’m comfortable here and I don’t want to move.  I feel like if I do, everything’s going to come unsettled more than it already is.”

 

            Spending the night in Makoto’s bed, wearing Makoto’s shirt, with her head on Makoto’s pillow.  Yeah, that could work.  Maybe a little too well.  “Okay,” answered Ami, hoping it didn’t sound as squeaky as it felt.  She cleared her throat a bit as she stood.  “Do you need anything before I go to bed?”

 

            “No thanks.”

 

            “Goodnight, then.”

 

            Ami had only taken a few steps when Makoto’s voice stopped her.  “Ami, wait.”

 

            Ami stopped where she was and waited for the request she thought Makoto was going to make.

 

            “I’m glad you came back,” said Makoto carefully.

 

            “I said I would,” answered Ami, wondering if this was Makoto’s way of addressing what happened this morning.

 

            “I know.  But I just wanted to say it.  I like having you here, and I don’t think I’ve actually told you that.”

 

            “I like being here, Mako-chan.  But…”  Ami hesitated for a second, then continued.  “But I’m going to be spending the nights at home this week.  Starting tomorrow night.”

 

            “I thought your mom wasn’t rotating to days until next week,” said Makoto.  “Did that doctor she’s covering for decide to go on vacation a week early?”

 

            “It’s just a last minute schedule change.  You know how it is.”  There, that wasn’t a complete lie.

 

            “I guess.  So it’s going to be three weeks instead of two?” asked Makoto, disappointment in her voice.

 

            “That’s how it looks, yes,” said Ami.

 

            Ami heard Makoto expel a deep breath.  “It can’t be helped, I suppose.  And just when I’d gotten used to sharing the bathroom in the morning, too.  Oh, well.  Night, Ami.”

 

            Ami was beginning to feel guilty about her decision to spend some time away from Makoto.  But as she lay in bed with one of Makoto’s pillows held to her chest, she remembered why she was doing this.  It was necessary, she knew, if for no other reason than to preserve her own sanity.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Rei drained her glass in one swallow and set it back on the table.  “I’ll be late this afternoon, Grandpa,” she reminded him.  “Minako wants to spend her birthday money, so we’re all going shopping.”

 

            Rei’s grandfather folded the newspaper he was reading.  “Have fun,” he said to Rei as she gathered her things for school.

 

            Leaning down, Rei kissed his bald head before hurrying out the door.

 

            When he heard the door close, Rei’s grandfather reopened his paper.  The headline in the current events section declared boldly, “Senator Hino Visits Hometown.”  The article beneath the headline gave the Senator’s schedule while he would be in town, along with an extensive list of his political accomplishments and all around good deeds.  According to the article, he had been in town for several days already and would be until Monday afternoon to finish up several speaking engagements and public appearances. 

 

            Grandpa sighed and shook his head sadly.  “You could have at least called her you sorry excuse for a man.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Minako heard only two words:  Blowout Sale.  Those words made everything else irrelevant.  “That’s where I want to go,” she told her friends as they met after their Saturday morning classes.

 

            Tokyo Plaza is twice as far as Juuban,” pointed out Rei.

 

            Minako blinked.

 

            “We haven’t been there in a while,” said Makoto.  “Maybe they’ve opened some new stores.  And it’s not like we don’t have the time.  Come on, I can catch a nap on the bus ride over.”

 

*            *            *

 

            Ami wandered out of the latest clothing store the other girls were gleefully terrorizing.  Rei’s complaints about coming here had quickly died out as soon as they stepped into the mall.  Now she was the one pulling Minako from store to store, trying on everything she could fit into.

 

            Ami stopped in front of a window display of knickknacks and keepsakes.  She leaned down a bit so she could better see the small object on the bottom shelf.

 

            Sitting on the shelf all by itself was a small sculpture of a butterfly.  The butterfly was seated on a pink flower, its wings spread wide as if it were about to take flight.  On the leaves and a few of the flower petals were tiny drops of crystal; raindrops from a summer shower.

 

            As Ami contemplated the figure before her, Usagi appeared beside her and imitated her stance.  Whatcha looking at?” asked the blonde.

 

            “The butterfly,” answered Ami tapping the glass lightly.

 

            Oooo… pretty,” admired Usagi.

 

            “It is,” replied Ami.  “Actually, it reminds me of a book I read recently.”

 

            “It must have been a happy book,” stated Usagi.

 

            “It was a gift from someone.  And it did make me happy.”  Ami turned to her friend with a smile.  “Mako-chan’s birthday is next month.  Do you think she’d like it?”

 

            “Yes, very much,” answered Usagi with a nod.

 

            “Will you keep her distracted if she comes out of the store before I do?” requested Ami.  “I shouldn’t be long.”

 

            Ami beat Makoto out of the store by less than 60 seconds.  Usagi breathed a sigh of relief.  Though she was a bit disappointed that she didn’t get to try out the stall tactic she was devising.

 

            “There you guys are,” called Minako as she hauled her bags over to them.  “Where’s Rei?”

 

            “We lost her in the dressing rooms,” explained Makoto as she followed behind Minako.  “She went to get another shirt and never came back.”

 

            “We haven’t seen her,” answered Ami.

 

            “Maybe she’s over there with all those other people,” suggested Usagi.  She pointed to the courtyard, where a large group had begun to gather.  “They must be starting whatever they had that stage set up for.”

 

            The girls moved closer to the crowd of people gathered around the small stage in the courtyard.  The area was decorated with balloons and streamers, banners and flags.  On the stage were several folding chairs now occupied by smartly dressed men and a single woman.  There was a podium at the center of the stage positioned near the front.  At the moment, a young man in an expensive looking suit was speaking to the audience.

 

            “I see her,” said Makoto, her height an advantage in the crowd.  “She’s over there by those plants.”

 

            The girls followed Makoto over to Rei.  They got up behind her and stopped dead as the young speaker introduced Senator Hino amid a round of loud applause.

 

            Rei wasn’t cheering.  Her face was set in a stony mask.  The only emotion she showed was in her eyes.  Minako saw the fire there and recognized the anger as well as the hurt.

 

            Usagi stepped up beside Rei. “Hey, Rei, isn’t that your…”

 

            “Yes, it is,” said Rei, cutting off Usagi.  “Come on, let’s go.”  Rei turned and started to walk away.

 

            “We’ll wait for you if you want to stay awhile,” said Makoto.

 

            “We came here to shop,” answered Rei, her voice sharp, “not to listen to some stupid politician talk about how great he is.  Now are you coming or not?”

 

            “But Rei…” started Usagi.

 

            Minako’s hand on her arm stopped Usagi from saying any more.  “Yeah, we’re coming,” said Minako.  She caught up to Rei, walking close enough so that their arms just brushed.

 

            The others looked at each other, shrugged, and followed after their friends.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            “Grandpa, I’m home,” called Rei as she entered the main living area of the shrine.

 

            Her grandfather appeared in the doorway, wiping his hands on a dishtowel.  “Looks like you had a busy afternoon,” he said when he saw all the bags Rei was setting down.

 

            “Big sale at the Plaza,” answered Rei.

 

            Grandpa frowned.  Quietly he said, “I see.”

 

            “Did anyone call while I was gone?”

 

            “No.  I’m sorry,” he added when he saw the slight droop in Rei’s posture.

 

            Rei straightened quickly.  A tight smile on her face when she turned to her grandfather, she replied, “No big deal.  So what’s for dinner?  I’m starving.”

 

            Rei followed her grandfather into the kitchen.  He pointed her towards the potatoes, and Rei set to peeling them as Grandpa went back to the vegetables.

 

            “Your mother couldn’t peel a potato to save her life,” he said casually.  Grandpa smiled at his memories of his daughter.  “Every time she tried, her fingers wound up in bandages and the potatoes came out looking like french fries.  I half think she did it on purpose so her mother wouldn’t ask her to help anymore.  Your mother hated to cook.”

 

            Rei smiled, her eyes narrowing just a bit as she tried to grasp an old memory.  “I remember her in the kitchen.  She was making something, but I can’t remember what.”

 

            “Oh, she could do it when she had to.  But she’d complain the whole way through.  Tea was the only thing she enjoyed doing.”

 

            “Because it was good for the soul,” said Rei, the memory of her mother’s voice a whisper in her ears.

 

            Mmm…”  Grandpa looked up from what he was doing and watched Rei’s face for a moment.  “You remind me of her in so many ways.  But I can see the differences as well.  Like the first time I held you. You looked up at me with those big, beautiful eyes, and I knew you were special.  The road Fate had put you on was going to bring you here, the fire in your soul would see to it.  And because of you, the shrine would stay in the family for at least one more generation, because I’d known for a long time that your mother’s place was somewhere else.

 

            “Each of us has a road we are meant to follow,” continued Grandpa.  “Your mother had a bright soul filled with dreams and desires that could never be fulfilled by a simple Shinto shrine.  It was why she fell in love with your father.”  Grandpa’s grin was melancholy when he said, “I remember thinking he was just a phase she was going through; a way of getting it out of her system before she settled down to her duties here.  But his ambitions touched something in her that I never could.  I see the same sort of bright soul and dreams in your Minako.”

 

            Rei looked at her grandfather with sudden comprehension and surprise.  “You’re afraid she’ll leave me, aren’t you?”

 

            “Your place is here, Rei,” said Grandpa, turning his knife back to the vegetables in front of him.  “You made that choice on your own, and you know it to be a correct one.  Minako, though, her road will take her out into the world she desires.  A soul like hers would never be happy caged in here and would soon be fighting to be set free.   I don’t want to see another of my girls hurt by a broken cage.”

 

            Rei was shaking her head.  She hadn’t been expecting this.  “I thought…  Never mind what I thought.  Grandpa, she isn’t going to leave me.”

 

            The knife went through a carrot and landed hard against the cutting board.  Grandpa looked back at Rei with an uncharacteristic sadness.  It was like he was saying through his expression how sorry he was for her because of her naiveté in the matter.

 

            Rei sighed.  “She won’t, Grandpa.  You’re right when you say she has dreams she needs to follow.  It wouldn’t be fair of me to ask her not to chase them any more than it would be fair of her to ask me to turn away from my life here.”  Rei smiled, hoping it would give some reassurance of her belief in what she was saying.  “You’re also right when you say her road will take her out there for a while.  But she’ll always come back.”

 

            “For you?” asked Grandpa skeptically.

 

            “Yes, as egotistical as that may sound,” answered Rei.  “There are other things, though, that have little, if nothing, to do with me.  Minako has her own destiny.  Believe it or not, Grandpa, it is here.”

 

            The old man’s shoulders slumped and he released a resigned sigh.  “I suppose there’s no way I can convince you to find a nice, young miko as a mate?  Or even a simple shrine maiden?”

 

            Rei shook her head.  “Afraid not.”

 

            “You seem very sure of all of this,” said Grandpa slowly.  “Maybe this once your old grandfather is just worrying too much.  That young woman’s light might be good for you after all.  Kami knows your mother would have liked her.”

 

            “Do you think so?” asked Rei.

 

            “I know so.”  Grandpa took on a contemplative expression.  “I’ve always tried to do things for you in a way that she would approve of.  As you’ve gotten older it’s become harder for me to guess at how she would’ve handled things.  Like with all of this.  If she had been the one to walk in on the two of you, how would she have reacted?”

 

            Rei’s cheeks colored as her grandfather went on to answer his own question.

 

            “Would she have been horribly embarrassed, upset with you because of what you were doing in front of the sacred flame, or,” and here Grandpa smiled, “would she have doubled over in laughter because you were doing it in front of the sacred flame?  Somehow, I think it would have been the latter.”

 

            Rei laughed in spite of her embarrassment.

 

            “However,” said Grandpa, his tone becoming just a touch more serious, “we’re going to set down some ground rules for when the two of you are here.  First, no more in the shrine room.  For that matter, nowhere anyplace but in your bedroom.  Just because I may have certain hobbies doesn’t mean I want to see my child engaged in any of those things.  Which brings me to my next point.  Grandpa took a deep breath, then said quickly, “She can spend the night.”

 

            Rei had to pick her jaw up off the floor.

 

            “I’d rather the two of you were here where I know you’re safe,” went on Grandpa.  “This is your home, and I realize you aren’t a child anymore.  But I’d like to pretend you are, so when she does stay over do everything in your power to make me believe it’s just an innocent sleepover.  Now nod your head and say ‘thank you, Grandpa.’”

 

            “Thank you, Grandpa,” said Rei with a nod and a grin.  “You’re really okay with this?”

 

            “I will be,” answered Grandpa.  “You seem to trust her a great deal.  I suppose I’m going to have to as well.  She is a nice girl.”  Grandpa’s expression became thoughtful.  “I should meet her parents, see what kind of family she comes from.”

 

            “Uh, about that.  It really isn’t necessary.”

 

            “Of course it is.  She’s a very important part of your life.”  Grandpa raised an eyebrow.  “Unless you’re embarrassed by your grandpa?”

 

            “No, no, that isn’t it,” Rei quickly assured him.  “It’s just that her parents don’t know about us.  They aren’t the most forward thinking people, and Minako’s worried about how they’ll take it.  She wants to wait to tell them until after she’s graduated in case they react badly.  There’ll be less complications that way.”

 

            Grandpa didn’t seem to like that answer.  “And you’re okay with her hiding you from the people in her life?”

 

            “She isn’t hiding me from people, only her parents.  Trust me on this, Grandpa.  I’ve met Minako’s parents, and I understand why she’s doing this.”

 

            “You’ve got more than a year before graduation,” replied Grandpa with a shake of his head.  “That’s a long time to try and hide something.”

 

            Rei shrugged.  “We’ve been doing it for this long.  And… um… it’s more like five years.”

 

            Grandpa stared at her.

 

            “College is expensive.”

 

            Closing his eyes, Grandpa pinched the bridge of his nose.  “It’s your life, Rei.”  He looked back up at her.  “And it’s your decision.  But you know, this shrine has never turned away anyone in need.  I won’t make her the exception, should she find herself in need of a place to stay.  In case your decision becomes too difficult to live with.”

 

            Rei stepped over to her grandfather and put her arms around him.  “Thank you,” she said happily as he hugged her back.

 

 

            They were clearing the dinner dishes when the phone rang.  Rei stood and stared at the thing as it continued to ring.

 

            “Do you want me to answer it?” asked Grandpa when he saw Rei make no move towards the phone.

 

            “No.  I’ll get it,” answered Rei.  She set the dishes on the table and went over to the phone.  After a deep breath to steel herself, Rei picked up the receiver.  “Hello.”

 

            A happy and feminine voice greeted her from the other end.  Rei’s shoulders fell just a bit.  She really had hoped it would be him.

 

            “I’m fine.  We just finished dinner,” Rei answered Minako.

 

            The two girls had talked for several minutes when Rei noticed her grandfather gesturing at her.  “Invite her over,” he mouthed to her.  He made a shooing gesture.  “Go on.”

 

            “Say, Minako, do you think you can come over for a while?” Rei asked.

 

            Grandpa cleared his throat loudly.  When Rei looked at him, he raised an eyebrow at her.

 

            “Um, actually,” said Rei hesitantly, “do you want to spend the night?”

 

            Grandpa nodded in approval and went about removing the dishes from the table.

 

            Rei couldn’t help but laugh.  In her mind she could see the confused expression on her girlfriend’s face.  “No, he’s here.  He says its okay.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            The two girls were seated together on the floor, Rei leaning against the couch, Minako lying with her head in Rei’s lap.  On the television was a movie they’d both seen at least a dozen times.  Rei’s hand was absently playing with Minako’s hair, making the already content blonde drowsy.

 

            Minako turned her head to look up at Rei.  She frowned when she realized Rei was staring at the phone again.  “This movie’s boring,” said Minako, lightly stabbing a finger into Rei’s belly.  “Let’s go to bed.”

 

            Rei grinned down at the playful smile Minako was giving her.  She traced a finger over the blonde’s lips and tapped the end of her nose.  “I like this movie.  Let’s wait until the end of it.  It’s almost over, anyway.”

 

            Minako toyed with the hem of Rei’s shirt.  Her finger ran along the edge of it, then slipped underneath, just barely touching Rei’s skin.  “I think you’d like bed better.”

 

            Rei’s smile widened.  She leaned down and kissed Minako slowly.  When they parted, Rei said, “I bet I would.  But I want to wait until the end of the movie.”

 

            Minako nodded and turned back to face the TV. 

 

            Rei’s hand went back to playing with Minako’s hair, except this time the action was more focused.  Her fingers moved gently over Minako’s cheek and up to trace along the edge of her ear.  She leaned forward to kiss Minako’s cheek, and quietly she said, “I know he isn’t going to call.  I haven’t spoken to my dad in over a year, and before today I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I saw him.  He doesn’t mean to do it, I think, but he gets busy and then he forgets about me.  There was this one time, it was my ninth birthday.  He called me at three in the morning because he’d gotten wrapped up in work, but he didn’t want me to think he forgot.  ‘I’ll never forget my little girl’s birthday,’ he said to me.  Until this year, he never did.”

 

            Minako rolled onto her back so she was looking up at Rei.  She wrapped her fingers around Rei’s.  “I know that hurt you.”

 

            Rei tried to brush it off.  “It’s not like seventeen is an important number.”

 

            “It is when you’ve been through everything we have,” answered Minako.  “Besides, you’re his daughter.  That makes it important, no matter what.”

 

            “He doesn’t know about any of what we do,” replied Rei.  “And he just isn’t good at being a father.  At least, that’s what Grandpa says when he isn’t calling him a sorry excuse for a man.”

 

            Minako agreed with that last part, but she was surprised Rei’s grandfather would have said that to her.

 

            “He’s never actually said it to me,” explained Rei.  “He only says that when he thinks I’m not listening.  When I’m around he says my dad loves me, but just doesn’t know how to be a father without Mom.”

 

            “And you still want to wait until the end of the movie?”

 

            Rei nodded.

 

            “Okay,” said Minako.  “Let me up for a minute.”  Minako moved off of Rei and started for the door.

 

            “Where are you going?” asked Rei.

 

            “To get something,” answered Minako with a secretive smile.  “I’ll be right back.”

 

            Ten minutes later, Minako stuck her head around the doorframe.  “Close your eyes,” she said to Rei.

 

            “Why?” asked Rei.  “What have you got?”  She started to rise from her place on the floor.

 

            Minako waved a hand at her.  “Stay where you are.  Just close your eyes.  It’s a surprise.”

 

            Rei sat back down and closed her eyes.  She crossed her arms over her chest, impatient and curious, as she heard Minako’s footsteps enter the room and stop in front of her.

 

            “Okay,” said Minako cheerfully, “open your eyes.”

 

            Rei opened her eyes and a huge, somewhat lecherous, grin spread across her face.  “You changed your clothes.”

 

            “Uh huh,” answered Minako.  She rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet a few times, her bare arms behind her back.

 

            Rei let her eyes wander over the girl in front of her.  Minako had traded in her jeans and sweatshirt for a wine red slip gown that fell to just above mid-thigh.  The silky material hugged her body without being tight, the curve of her hips and the swell of her breasts being nicely accented.  The neckline came down in a shallow V that showed off a hint of cleavage.  Shoestring bows were centered on the gown’s straps, and Rei wondered if they were just for show or if she would be able to untie them.

 

            Rei stood and walked over to Minako.  She draped her arms loosely over the girl’s shoulders.  “I haven’t seen this before.  It looks nice on you.”

 

            “Thank you,” said Minako, one of her hands moving to Rei’s hip.  That hand worked its way under Rei’s shirt, fingers trailing along the skin at Rei’s side and back.

 

            Rei’s fingers drew a path over Minako’s right shoulder.  They came to the strap of the gown and played along the edge of it before moving it aside.

 

            As Rei’s lips pressed gently to her shoulder, Minako closed her eyes and tilted her head to the side.  Rei’s kisses trailed from her shoulder to her neck.  Teeth nipped at the spot just below Minako’s ear, followed a second later by soft lips.  Minako sighed at the feeling.

 

            “Mina,” whispered Rei, her warm breath tickling Minako’s ear, “I like my surprise a lot, but we have to move it to the bedroom.  I promised Grandpa.”  Rei smirked.  “Besides, the door in here doesn’t lock.”

 

            Minako’s fingers stilled their movement and rested on Rei’s back.  The blonde giggled.  “Lock the door?  Now just what is it your ecchi little mind is thinking?”

 

            “I think you know what I’m thinking,” answered Rei.  For emphasis, her hand moved down and cupped Minako’s breast through the fabric of her gown.

 

            The blonde feigned shock at her companion.  “Rei, I’m shocked,” she teased.  “And I thought you wanted to play with your surprise.”

 

            “I do,” replied the miko.  “I’d also liked to play with what’s inside it.”  She tried to kiss Minako then, but the blonde stopped her.

 

            With the fingers that had been against Rei’s back now pressed to her lips, Minako said, “Then let me show you your surprise.”

 

            Rei was now completely confused.

 

            Minako was grinning madly at the look on Rei’s face.  She took a step back and pulled her other hand out from behind her back.  In it, she held a yellow and pink space blaster-type plastic gun.  “Ta da,” declared Minako, pulling the trigger, causing a line of bubbles to shoot out at Rei.

 

            Rei stood and gaped for several seconds as bubbles floated around her head.  One popped against the tip of her nose, causing her to blink several times to clear her sight.  With Minako laughing at her, Rei couldn’t help but smile.  She rolled her eyes at the blonde and took her by the wrist.  “Come on, we’re going to bed.”

 

            “But I thought you wanted to see the end of the movie,” said Minako teasingly.

 

            “Seen it,” answered Rei.  “It’s boring.”

 

            When they got to Rei’s room, Rei closed the door and turned the lock.  Leaning back against the door, she took a moment to admire the sight before her.  “Have I told you yet how glad I am you called tonight?”

 

            Minako’s smile and the light in her eyes was all the answer Rei needed.